Untold Rock Stories – 1: The Wesley Willis Fiasco, mid-90s
In the 1990s, Wesley Willis, leader of the punk rock group the Wesley Willis Fiasco, became something of a cause célèbre in indie rock music due to his well-documented struggles with paranoid schizophrenia. As a result, Willis’ music was unintentionally obscene and most of the time completely hilarious.
I vaguely remember Wesley being profiled on some ‘alternative’ music show on MTV in the US like 120 Minutes or Alternative Nation back when the channel still played videos (albeit they relegated the good videos to midnight or later, and you’d have to use old-school VHS tapes to catch the videos as you slept). The music press around this time – as well as the MTV interview – made Wesley’s sometimes erratic mental condition abundantly clear. Apparently some of his audience in the world of rock didn’t get the message, and were in for a hell of a shock at one show sometime in the mid-90s.
The crowd this evening was filled with hipster-y types and vaguely frat-boyish guys who probably regarded Wesley Willis as sort of an indie, quirky musical version of acts like The Jerky Boys and Adam Sandler who were popular in the U.S. during that time. The majority of the crowd expected an African-American version of Beck, who was releasing songs at that time like ‘Satan Gave Me a Taco’. Instead, Willis arrived on the stage already in a bad mood, and absolutely refused to play unless he had Chocolate Silk (a soy version of chocolate milk). So, the crowd was treated to a few minutes of Wesley Willis being vociferously angry about not having his favorite chocolate milk substitute (hey, it could be a lot worse … at least he wasn’t asking for a groupie to fuck or a bag of Colombian booger sugar).
At long last, a roadie presented Wesley Willis with a tall glass of Chocolate Silk, which he greedily gulped. When that problem was solved, Willis started playing music … except it wasn’t music, not even his own music.
It was gibberish.
Occasionally Willis would insert a familiar phrase like, “Burger King is the home of the whopper!” before lapsing back into wholly incomprehensible, stream-of-consciousness rants. The crowd either hadn’t done any research into the actual music/performances of Wesley Willis, or hadn’t bothered to find out what paranoid schizophrenia really was (in his defense, Willis, by all accounts, was a friendly, decent guy who just happened to have a sometimes-crippling mental illness). [A friendly, decent guy who liked to greet people with a head butt – Ed.] The audience, save for a few die-hard fans and some punk rock kids, quickly vacated the premises. In a way, that worked – only because those people weren’t actively exploiting a guy with a severe mental illness by laughing cruelly at him.
Wesley Willis (R.I.P.) died in 2003, but not before leaving us with nuggets like ‘Rock’N’Roll McDonalds’ and ‘Birdman Kicked My Ass’. His fans continue to miss his head butts.
Note: This crux of this story was relayed to the author by a friend via telephone